Ron Plasterk on Sydney Brenner, Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology
  Ron Plasterk     Biography    
Recorded: 07 Jun 2004

While I was at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Sydney Brenner was the director of that place and he may have been a good director. I don’t think he was liked very much as the director because he was full of jokes. And some of them were not the sort of jokes I think one expects of a director. I remember sitting next to him. I was just—who was I? You know, just a postdoc visiting there for a brief period—I was sitting next to him, happened to sit next to him in a lecture hall before a seminar. And then in walked two people who were the joint heads of a department. And Sydney sort of bends over to me and says, “Oh, there is the gang of two, or as I like to think of them, the gang of one and a half.” You know, it was funny, but it was nasty, right? I remember even at that time thinking, this is an unusual thing for a director to say about his own heads of division. But he was always full of that. He thought that it was [more] important that it was funny, than that it was good management.

So when I joined the lab, John Sulston took me to see Sydney Brenner and he said, “Sydney, this is Ronald, he will work with us. But I have no desk space.” He just looked up with his eyebrows, and said, “Well, he’ll just have to work at the bench, right?” And that was all, end of story, end of discussion. Well, it worked fine actually. I mean even if we didn’t have a lot of bench space, we had a little cart that we would roll into a lab to work on because I shared a bench with Bob Waterston, who was doing a sabbatical at the time at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology. I thought that that was actually an important sabbatical because Bob was from St. Louis in the United States and he came back to do something entirely unrelated. I think he wanted to clone the myo-3 gene, but during that sabbatical he became interested in the genome project.

Then Maynard Olson visited and he started talking about making a YAC library of the worm genome and Bob did that. Out of that came the axis between St. Louis and Cambridge, Hinxton later, to sequence the human genome. That was important.

Ronald Plasterk, is a Dutch politician of the Labour Party and successful scientist and molecular genetics. He studied biology at the Leiden University and economics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1981 he received the Dutch doctorandus degree in biology. In 1984 he earned a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences from the University of Leiden.

After receiving his Ph.D. he moved to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and worked as a post-doc (1985-1986) on the transposon sequences in DNA in the parasite Borrelia hermsii. Plasterk was also a post-doc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (1986-1987) where he studied Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode that is used as a model organism. His major area of research include genetics and functional genomics.

He came back to the Netherlands in 1987 and became a group leader and member of the board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1989 and 2000 he was director of the research school of oncology at the institute. From 1997 till 2000 he was professor of molecular genetics at the University of Amsterdam. In 2000 was appointed director of the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology (Hubrecht Laboratory) and at the same time he was a professor in developmental genetics at Utrecht University.

In February 2007 Ronald Plasterek was appointed minister of Education, Culture and Science in the fourth Balkenende government and he decided to end his scientific career. He held this position until February 2010. He is a member of the House of Representatives and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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